I’m not proud of it, but I must admit that for much of my life I’ve taken religious freedom for granted. I was born in the US, so I enjoy the freedoms that belong to US citizens. Like many, the most I can say for myself is that I’ve always been quietly grateful to live in a country with religious freedom.
North Americans are among a minority in the world’s population in having the privilege of religious freedom. 5,300,000,000 people in the world (out of approximately 7,500,000,000 – or about two-thirds) face severe religious restrictions coming from their own governments, not to mention the persecutions administered by non-state religiously affiliated organizations.
The 9/11 attacks and other terrorist activities have raised new awareness and concerns related to religious freedom. Religious terrorism, which is a violent expression of religious intolerance, has prompted many to ponder what is it like to live or work in a setting where one’s chosen religion is outlawed, forced underground, and deemed punishable with imprisonment, torture, and/or death.
If one conducts a google search on “religious persecution today,” complete with images, and reads associated news stories from the Pew Research Center and the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, one is readily provided with a grim reality check. The well-circulated images of Christians being taken to a beach and summarily executed are horrific. But they are drops in the bucket when it comes to the high incidence of religious persecution in the world today.
It’s essential for those of us who value religious freedom to understand and appreciate its history, philosophy, and ethics, given its minority status and vulnerability in the world among both religious and non-religious populations. Some oppose religious freedom on religious grounds, while others oppose it on non-religious grounds. For instance, atheists have proposed that the world would be kinder, gentler, and more peaceful without religion. We may note, however, that in history, atheistic countries have no better record of peace and kindness than religious countries.
Others have suggested that the practice of religious freedom should exclude those religions that have been associated with terrorism in recent years, which quickly becomes a slippery slope back down the hill toward intolerance.
These are not new issues. The Puritans in Massachusetts wanted religious freedom for themselves but practiced intolerance toward most others. They were eventually reigned in and prevented from further hangings and burning of accused “heretics” (such as Baptists, Quakers, and Roman Catholics!) at the stake through the state’s ostensibly rational, political process of developing and implementing religious freedom laws. Puritans could still practice as Puritans, but finally they were prevented from harming others in doing so — or face the law of the land and its consequences, just like those who were guilty of harming others for non-religious reasons.
Many colonists emigrated to North America, or from colony to colony, having seen and/or experienced firsthand the dreadful, deadly results of religious persecution in Europe, Massachusetts, and other places. So, they envisioned a future that would look different from their past. And they proceeded to build a foundation for that future.
Religious and political leaders of the colonies, and then the states, figured out how to overcome their differences enough to form a tight and constructive alliance, and worked together to ensure that citizens of the new nation would never again have to endure religious persecution. Led by Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and others, they drafted and passed the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights that still guarantees religious freedom today.
Those early US Americans, many of whom were Deists and Baptists, were passionately committed to ensuring the human rights and dignity of the citizens of the new nation. They took a radical position for that time by insisting that even the religious preferences of Quakers, Catholics, and Jews should be respected alongside Puritans, Methodists, Unitarians, and Anglicans. Both political and religious leaders invested themselves deeply in the politics of their day to help carve out and preserve for all citizens the right of religious freedom.
Many of these pioneering builders of a new nation, including the Puritans in their own way, believed God was leading them forward and answering the prayers of generations of religiously persecuted ancestors. They believed God was doing something new in America, creating a “city on a hill” for all the world to see. It didn’t turn out exactly how the Puritans envisioned it, but eventually they, too, saw the light and the relative peace that was made possible by the establishment of religious freedom. As a result, Christians in the Wesleyan tradition, among others, could thrive and play an important part in fulfilling the Great Commission of Jesus Christ in and beyond North America.
In a Wesleyan theological perspective, ours is not a God who coerces people and nations to conform even to the best practices of religion or government. We have not seen Jesus in the gospels requiring people to believe in him. We would be hard pressed to identify even one individual who has been forced by the Holy Spirit to do or not to do anything. Free will and freedom of conscience factor heavily into Wesleyan theology and life.
Religious freedom is an amazing gift, then, that God and our nation’s founders conspired to provide even for us, so that we are free to worship God and offer the good news of Jesus Christ without constraint. This is a good thing that we may certainly wish, pray, and work for in all the world. Our work is cut out for us because Christianity is the most highly persecuted faith in the two-thirds of the world where religious freedom is currently denied.
To continue to work to establish and secure religious freedom, in our nation and beyond, is to pave a much-needed path not only to dignity, peace, productivity, and goodwill for all the world’s citizens, but especially for the good news of Jesus Christ.